Upward and Outward With the Arts

Locked Out of Manhattan, Dancers Find New Workshops in Brooklyn

Brooks, the first of the directors to self-produce at WAX (his Moving Company performs there March 15 through 18), is optimistic about the future. Decrying the "victim mentality" of many artists, he says, "It's not the state of the dance world that's bad, it's people's attitudes that are bad."

Choreographer and ballet master Zvi Gotheiner, who lost his space at 550 Broadway when the landlord practically tripled his rent, believes dancers are "addicted" to dancing, that they'll keep finding places to work despite the current crisis. His Soho loft had been a dance studio for 30 years, home to modern-dance greats Daniel Nagrin and Paul Taylor among others. Gotheiner taught daily ballet classes there and, with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, made the space available for rehearsals at $10 per hour. Soundance and Gotheiner now share office space on West 38th Street; they lease from Pentacle, a dance service organization pushed out of its Franklin Street office and studio early last year.

The rent for FreeRange Arts, Dale Fournier's bright studio at 250 West 26th Street, was also due to triple. Although she explored various options to keep it open, including forming a choreographers' collective, Fournier had to close the space last November.

WAXing in Williamsburg (clockwise from top): directors Marisa Beatty, Melissa Rodnon, Brian Brooks, AND David Tirosh
photo: Robin Holland
WAXing in Williamsburg (clockwise from top): directors Marisa Beatty, Melissa Rodnon, Brian Brooks, AND David Tirosh

Aside from institutions fortunate enough to own local property, the biggest beneficiary of Manhattan's real estate insanity is Brooklyn. As the borough's preeminent performing arts institution, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is perfectly positioned to capitalize on the influx of immigrants from the isle of the Manhattoes. Jeanne Lutfy, president of BAM's Local Development Corporation, says BAM has developed an international reputation, but up until a few years ago it was "all alone" in the neighborhood. Harvey Lichtenstein, longtime director of BAM, wanted to create a "vibrant context" for the opera house and cooked up the idea of a BAM "cultural district." They envision a mixed-use cultural landscape combining arts groups, educational facilities, housing, restaurants, retail, and other amenities. The open-ended, multi-million-dollar undertaking is centered in a 14-block area around BAM in Fort Greene.

Lutfy sees the cultural district as, in theory, "the opposite of Lincoln Center." Rather than flatten a neighborhood to erect a monumental arts center, the BAM LDC plans to develop vacant and underutilized properties. Lutfy and Lichtenstein are not looking to "overhaul" the character of the neighborhood, which has some beautiful, brownstone-lined streets; instead, they're taking a fill-in-the-blanks approach. "We don't think we can chart the direction of this entire thing," says Lutfy. They plan to "initiate and activate development" so that things can happen "organically."

The project's recent coup was luring big-fish choreographer Twyla Tharp to the area. The BAM LDC found Tharp a 6500-square-foot space at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on South Oxford Street in Fort Greene. This cavernous former Sunday school had been used as dead storage for many years. The BAM LDC is leasing it directly from the church and paying for the $500,000 renovation, which includes repairing gorgeous stained-glass windows, installing a dance floor, and building offices. Tharp, in turn, plans to make the studio a home for her company. The buzz is about community interaction. Tharp will invite the public to open rehearsals and informal performances. She'll hold classes at all levels, for professionals, amateurs, and local children. Ever ambitious, she plans to expand her company, currently six members, into something that might eventually be called the Brooklyn Ballet.

Tharp's arrival in Fort Greene will coincide with the opening of the five-story Mark Morris Dance Center at 3 Lafayette Avenue this spring. Although, for technical reasons, BAM LDC facilitated the transfer of ownership of Morris's site from the state to his company, plans for his development predate the cultural district concept. Morris will be, nonetheless, a prominent settler in the burgeoning BAM colony.

Of course, the balance constantly shifts. The strong economy has benefited the established arts organizations. Maybe a downturn will be kinder to the smaller groups.

Harvey Lichtenstein and other speakers will address the space crisis facing the arts on Wednesday, February 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Proshansky Auditorium at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue.

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